Hillary's greatest asset?

JUST three weeks ago, it was an article of faith that was beyond questioning: Bill Clinton was his wife's greatest asset in her presidential campaign. The former president was loved by all Democrats. Practically all he had to do was walk into any roomful of Democratic voters, remind them of the prosperity of the 1990s, and the deal would be closed. All but the most truculent would leave the room committed Hillaryites.

By Michael Tomasky

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Published: Wed 30 Jan 2008, 8:39 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:12 AM

Today? Consider this exit-poll data point from Saturday's voting in South Carolina, where Barack Obama romped to a two-to-one victory over Hillary Clinton. Voters were asked to rate the importance of Bill Clinton's campaigning as a factor in determining how they voted. A majority, 58 per cent, said that the former president's campaigning — he spent last week in the state lobbing volley after boorish volley at Obama (and at the media), while his wife was mostly elsewhere — was important. And guess what? Those 58 per cent voted for Obama.

Granted, Obama won by far more among the 39 per cent who said that Bill Clinton's role wasn't an important factor. But the fact that Obama carried the day among the 58 per cent is staggering. As we move to the 22-state primary-palooza of February 5, the key question for the Clinton campaign — in a way for Obama's team as well — is what to do about this.

Early signs from camp Clinton suggest that the former president has not been given his sedative. Saturday evening, after it was known that Obama was cruising to victory, Bill Clinton made the less than gracious observation that "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in 84 and 88". The comment struck a lot of people as one more inappropriate and dismissive attempt to pigeonhole Obama as "just the black guy".

That could be written off as one more instance of Bill Clinton's off-the-cuff freelancing. But on Saturday night, his wife's campaign made the bewildering decision to send Mr Clinton out to deliver what was in essence her concession speech. Hillary Clinton spoke only much later — after Obama, which broke with custom. By that time the cable channels had lost interest, and they cut away from her after a few minutes.

This kind of decision will only keep the spotlight on Bill — and not just on the nature of his campaigning style. In recent days, a far more important question has been bubbling to the surface, concerning what sort of role he would play in his wife's presidency.

Think about it. A former president, who knows the inner workings of government intimately, would be back in the White House. He may have no official title or role. Yet he would, it's fair to assume, be deeply enmeshed in both politics and policy.

To what extent would this constitute a co-presidency? Writing in the New York Times on Saturday, Garry Wills noted that America's founders had wrestled with just this question and decided executive power had to be invested in one person for the sake of holding that person accountable. Wills — who has written glowingly about Hillary in the past — directly compared Bill's possible role to the one being played now by Dick Cheney and concluded that "it does not seem to be a good idea to put another co-president in the White House".

It has long been assumed — more conventional wisdom — that Bill as co-president was another huge plus, especially for Democratic voters. But suddenly even sympathetic observers like Wills are exploring the darker penumbras of that question. And with Bill having raised millions of dollars for his library from undisclosed donors — some of whom would surely have business with the federal government, as Frank Rich noted in his Sunday New York Times column — these explorations are likely to mount over the next 10 days.

It leaves me very curious not only as to how Hillary Clinton will address her husband's role in the coming days, but how Obama will as well.

The Clintons have argued, not without justification, that the Republicans are going to throw everything at Obama if he's the nominee, so voters need to see now if he can take the heat. By contrast, Senator Clinton has said that everything there is to know about her is already known.

Well — not quite, it turns out. We don't know her husband's recent donors and we don't know exactly what the Clintons have in mind for his role in her presidency. This campaign is still going to be rough and tumble. And Obama is behind in current polling in most of the key February 5 states.

If Obama decides to put these questions on the table, it will constitute a very aggressive move — going nose to nose with the party's 800lb gorilla. He may not need to — the media may do it for him. Either way, the Bill Clinton of today is being called lots of things. But asset to his wife isn't one of them.

Michael Tomasky is editor of Guardian America

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